Originally, I had intended to write this post about climate change and the construction of consumer behaviour and culture, as seen through archaeology, but I think we’ve all been forced to confront the constructed fragility of our society just a little too much in recent weeks. Instead, let’s talk about things! And stuff! And if I sneak a little theory in here, well, I’d say sorry, but I wouldn’t mean it.
Part of what had got me thinking about climate change and consumer behaviour in the first place was the relationship between what I study and my own life. Both in terms of relevance – the ability of archaeology to aid in understanding and making choices in the present day – and in terms of personal perspective. How much my research makes me question my own relationship with the material world, for example. How much my things say about me, but also how much my things mean to me. If I’m looking at artefacts from 150 years ago as objects with social meaning, items with value that go beyond the economic, what meaning do I find – and place – in my own things?
The things we own say something about us, whether we want them to or not. That is a central tenet of material culture studies, particularly within archaeology, where that meaning allows us to interpret broader socio-cultural behaviours and patterns from the rubbish past peoples have left behind (key point here: material culture studies is the study of material culture). But the things we own also say something to us, as conscious or unconscious tools in how we reinforce – or even construct – our own sense of self. One of my favourite examples of this are my keys. A meaning they held that I wasn’t aware I had given them became apparent when I moved to Australia a couple of years ago. For the first week or so I was there, I had no keys. I didn’t have a house yet, I didn’t have a car and I didn’t have an office. No gates, no locks, no responsibilities. I felt untethered from what had, until that moment, been my adult life and I realised just how much my keys – the most mundane of objects, yet one that (along with my phone) I look for and use every single day – had come to embody being an adult. Not in the sense of my age, but in how they represented the behaviours that characterised the person I had become in my adult life – the independence of owning a car, living in a house I was at least partially responsible for, having access to a workplace that in itself represented a career I had chosen and a contribution I (hopefully!) was making. All of that, bound up in a few funny shaped pieces of metal on a ring.
This may have been an association that I was surprised to realise I made, but it’s certainly not an unprecedented one. Keys have been a symbolic representation of adulthood for at least a century in New Zealand, gifted as part of the ritual coming of age encapsulated in a person’s twenty-first birthday. I did a little research into this, trying to find the origins of the symbolism, but it’s not particularly clear from the limited online research I’m able to do. Some accounts link it back to medieval knights and the age structure associated with the progression of a boy from page to squire to knight, but none of these are referenced at all, so I take it with a grain of salt (Marris 2018; The Great Race 2018). The presentation of an ornamental key at the age of twenty-one seems to be a peculiarly colonial tradition, associated with Australia and New Zealand in particular, although the sources for this are also a bit lacking (Williams 2017). It does appear that it’s largely a tradition of the twentieth century, perhaps tied into the social and economic significance of twenty-one as an age of ‘majority’ (Swarbrick 2013; Temuka Leader 20/01/1927: 3; Akaroa Mail and Banks Peninsula Advertiser 19/02/1935: 1). It’s not quite the same association I’ve inadvertently made with my keys, but it’s not far off.
Like my keys, the Christchurch archaeological assemblage is full of countless examples of objects that held meaning beyond the functional: from clay tobacco pipes that were both tools of smoking and political propaganda; to christening cups that were commemorative items and also tea wares; ceramics that carried the stories of empire, trade and British colonialism in their designs; and foodstuffs that evoked familiarity as well as sustenance. Things that may have been bought and used for more reasons than just their economic or functional values. Things that were important to who people were, where they came from and what they wanted to be. This meaning might not be the easiest to interpret from the archaeological record (not impossible, though), but it’s an important factor in understanding the relationship between people and things in the past. It’s also an important reminder to consider, when interpreting an archaeological assemblage – whether from a household or a city – not just what that collection of objects might say about the people who used and discarded it, but also what it might have said to them, about where they came from and who they were.
For example, if being momentarily bereft of keys in a new country made me confront the unconscious representation of my adult life in some bits of metal, then the lockdown has reminded me, yet again, how important my accumulated material culture is to my sense of self. There is nothing quite like rapid change to make you re-evaluate your world and your place in it and, if you are a student of material culture studies, nothing quite like being separated from your stuff to force a bit of introspection. Like Joni Mitchell says, you don’t know what you’ve got ‘til it’s gone (or you can’t access it. like flat whites. do not underestimate how much I miss flat whites right now.).
I’m on lockdown in Christchurch, while my things remain in Melbourne, minus the two suitcases I brought with me (one was mostly books and whisky, I’ll be honest). After the situation with the keys, I should have realised how unsettled I would feel now, to be living inside a house, for who knows how long, where very little of what surrounds me is mine. It’s not just the familiarity of a certain aesthetic that’s important here, or any kind of possessiveness: it goes deeper than that. The story of who I am – the history of my identity – is bound up in the things I own. Gifts from people I love, things I have bought at different points of my life, things I’ve held onto from childhood, things that remind me of a moment or an experience, a collection of stuff curated by what I’ve chosen to keep, that speaks to me of what’s important to who I am. Without it, trapped inside a house for an unknown period of time, I feel ill at ease, untethered again.
The effect that being separated from my stuff has had on my sense of self throws my mind back to the experience of the Christchurch colonists, specifically the significance of British material culture in their creation and reinforcement of self – as individuals and as a community. This land was not their home and the making of it was forced, through the construction of familiar social, political and cultural structures and through the construction of a material world that reinforced their sense of self, individually and collectively (and came at the expense of the world of tangata whenua, who had been there for centuries). The things they brought with them had a role to play in the transposition of British colonial culture onto New Zealand, through the behaviours and social rituals they reinforced, from teacups and afternoon tea to the clothes, needles and gender roles of the ‘cult of domesticity’ (i.e. Middleton 2007, 2013; Staniforth 2002). Others reinforced a sensory connection to Britain, through food, through the aesthetics of colour and form and texture in furnishings and ornamentation. Others still would have contributed to those colonist’s ideas of who they were in this new place, and what they had come here to do.
There is a danger in retroactively applying notions of the present day onto past societies, particularly subjective meaning like this. But there is also a danger in assuming that, if we cannot easily find the more ephemeral meaning of the past, it does not exist. That the functional and the economic were the only relationships that past people had with the things they owned. I do not know if the colonists of the 1850s recognised the materialistic nature of their world, or acknowledged the importance of their material culture with quite this level of self-awareness. All the same, I’m certain it was important, to their continuing and developing sense of self, and to the colonial venture in general.
Ours is a materialistic society, as theirs was. If there’s one thing this research has forced me to recognise in my own relationship with things, it’s that I’m really quite materialistic. I feel like I should say that a little bit like confessing to an addiction. Hello, my name is Jessie and I am materialistic. It’s a word that evokes conspicuous consumption, ‘new wealth’, “keeping up with the Jones’”, gaudiness, vulgarity, debt, the worst of consumerism and consumer culture. Despite the overwhelmingly consumerist capitalist society we live in (or did until now, who knows what next week will hold, what even is anything), somehow, ‘materialistic’ still carries something of a slur with it. It’s a meaning that owes a great deal to Veblen’s conspicuous consumption, but it’s had the unfortunate effect of obscuring many of the other ways in which material goods are valued by people in the modern world (i.e. Douglas and Isherwood 1979). Most of us are materialistic, in the significance we place on the things we own and the comfort they provide. More simply, our interaction with material goods is an essential and everyday part of our lives, and our selves. Tell me it isn’t, the next time you find yourself craving something you can’t access during this lockdown, or taking comfort in the things you do have.
To put it more flippantly, when you come down to it, Madonna was right. We are all material girls, living in a material world. (Sorry.)
Douglas, M. and Isherwood, B., 1979. The World of Goods: Towards an Anthropology of Consumption. New York: Routledge.
Heath, B., Breen, E. B. and Lee, L. A. Material Worlds: Archaeology, Consumption and the Road to Modernity. New York: Routledge.
Middleton, A., 2007. ‘Silent Voices, Hidden Lives: Archaeology, Class and Gender in the CMS Missions, Bay of Islands, New Zealand 1814-1845. In International Journal of Historical Archaeology, Vol. 11, Issue 1, pp. 1-31.
Middleton, A., 2013. Missionization and the Cult of Domesticity, 1769-1850: Local Investigation of a Global Process. In Spencer-Wood, S. (Ed.), Historical and Archaeological Perspectives on Gender Transformations: From Private to Public. New York: Springer.
Miller, D., 1995. Acknowledging Consumption: A Review of New Studies. London and New York: Routledge.
Staniforth, M., 2002. Material Culture and Consumer Society: Dependent Colonies in Colonial Australia. New York: Kluwer Academic/Plenum Publishers.
2 thoughts on “Keys, materialism and things”
Thanks Jessie. This is wonderful: thoughtful, beautiful, investigative in the best possible way. One small observation I would make about the impact of covid lockdown on my material life, my material self, is that I find my handbag languishing unused. I don’t go out so have no need of a bag to carry phone, keys, wallet, pen, lip balm and those myriad with me in my comings and goings. It is a marker of being stationary. I am still spending – on accommodation, electricity, phone, food – so consumption continues but in a restricted way.
What are the accoutrements of consumption? Handbags for women, wallets in back pockets and coins in front pockets for men?
Charlotte Macdonald, Historian, Wellington, 14 April 2020
I know exactly what you mean! My handbag is also hanging sadly in a corner, unused. I’ve noticed I don’t know where my wallet is a lot of the time as well (it’s somewhere safe, I’m sure!). Not as much need for the physical manifestation of money, I suppose.
Thanks for the lovely words – I’m so glad you enjoyed the post!